Do you believe in ghosts? Have you ever seen a UFO? How about a cryptid like Bigfoot or the Loch Ness Monster? Or simply had some sort of experience that you couldn’t explain? While many of us like to be scared when we sit down to watch a horror movie, we ultimately know that what we’re seeing on the screen isn’t real. With these eight paranormal documentaries, however, that may not be the case. Delving into everything from witchcraft and ghosts to alien encounters and unexplained phenomena, these filmmakers explore the boundaries of what we know—and ask what lurks just beyond, in ways that are bound to lead you to some sleepless nights.
For our first documentary about the supernatural, we have to go all the way back to one of the oldest surviving documentaries that still exists, Benjamin Christensen’s legendary 1922 silent film Haxan. This ambitious Swedish film chronicles “Witchcraft Through the Ages,” the title under which it was initially released in the United States, through a combination of documentary footage and dramatic reenactments of medieval superstitions and beliefs.
Though it has become a classic and has been released by the Criterion Collection, Haxan’s very age and status as a silent film mean that it isn’t as often seen by modern audiences as it perhaps should be, especially given that many of its grim tableaux have never been exceeded for horrific imagery.
In a world filled with documentaries and (often lazily-researched) docuseries about unidentified flying objects and the possibility that we are not alone in the solar system, one of the most influential and eeriest remains one of the first. Producer Clarence Greene made the film UFO in 1956, just a few years after the term had first been coined, inspired in part by his own encounter with an unidentified flying object.
The film, which combines a fictionalized narrative with analyses of actual early UFO footage, provided a template for many UFO documentaries that would come later, and exists as an eerie relic of a moment when UFOs were at the forefront of the public consciousness—and remained unexplained and underexplored.
Wisconsin Death Trip
Adapted from the notorious 1973 book of the same name, James Marsh’s 1999 film combines voiceover narration from actor Ian Holm reading contemporary newspaper accounts with silent, black-and-white reenactments of historic tragedies that rocked the residents of Black River Falls, Wisconsin in the late 1800s.
The combined weight of so much unlikely tragedy with the local beliefs and superstitions of the predominantly German, Swedish, and Norwegian inhabitants of the region paints a grim picture without any clear cause or throughline. One that is easy to be haunted by. “The stories are based on a respect for the individual tragedies and disasters,” Marsh has said. “If the film lacks one thing, it’s a governing idea on that level – but it would have been a travesty.”
Beware the Slenderman
We all know that the Slender Man isn’t real, right? One of the most famous creepypastas, Slender Man was created by Eric Knudson on the Something Awful forums in June of 2009. And yet, Slender Man has accomplished something few other paranormal entities have managed – he was responsible for a near-fatal stabbing in 2014.
Beware the Slenderman focuses its lens on this crime, which was committed by two girls who wanted to appease the fictional boogeyman, and goes from there to explore the repercussions of this creepy creation on our real world, in both fact and fiction. After all, once even a made-up story reaches far enough into our lives, the two begin to blur in unsettling ways.
Is it, as Dread Central’s Steve Barton said, “one of the single most compelling documentaries on the existence of the supernatural that I’ve ever witnessed,” or, as investigator Kenny Biddle claims, is it “filmed in a documentary style but doesn’t portray real events?”
In either case, the 2018 flick Demon House follows Zak Bagans as he purchases a home in Gary, Indiana that was purportedly the site of demonic activity so severe that it got the Department of Child Services involved. Bagans himself is no stranger to the paranormal, having acted as the primary host for the Travel Channel series Ghost Adventures. Whether you’re a skeptic or a believer, this haunted house flick is sure to provide plenty of frights.
The Bray Road Beast
Seth Breedlove and his production company Small Town Monsters have made a cottage industry out of documentaries about cryptids all over the country, from the Mothman of Point Pleasant to the Boggy Creek Creature of rural Arkansas. In The Bray Road Beast, Breedlove sets his sights on the eponymous wolf-like humanoid said to haunt Walworth County, Wisconsin. Through interviews and dramatic recreations, he brings this local legend to chilling life, in a film that Wisconsin Frights called “unnerving and completely fascinating.”
The House in Between
It may not be as famous as many of the other haunted houses that have appeared on paranormal investigation shows, but according to filmmakers Steve Gonsalves and Kendall Whelpton, the Jackson house in Mississippi has been undergoing a continuous paranormal investigation for more than 10 years in an attempt to get to the bottom of what is happening in “what may be the most haunted house in America,” as the film’s marketing materials would have it.
The result is a surprisingly human look at what it means to own a supposedly haunted house, as the filmmakers combine scientific theories and documentary footage to try to make sense of one woman’s unusual experiences. This 2020 documentary was followed by a sequel in 2022.
An Unknown Compelling Force
In 1959, nine experienced hikers perished under mysterious circumstances in Russia’s Ural Mountains. The event, which has become known as the Dyatlov Pass Incident, is one of the most compelling and haunting unsolved mysteries of modern times, and yet it never got an exhaustive documentary approach until 2021. That was when filmmaker Liam Le Guillou released An Unknown Compelling Force, a chilling look at the incident, debunking some of the more outlandish theories surrounding the deaths of the hikers, but providing as many haunting questions as it does answers.